THEY are called ``teamsters'' because decades ago they drove wagons pulled by teams of horses. With the advent of the automotive age, they became ``truckers,'' and their role in the American economy has been to deliver the goods for companies and consumers.
As the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, Chauffeurs, Warehousemen and Helpers of America, they have long had a significant stake in the nation's economy and politics, and some notoriety. Recently, under the reformist leadership of President Ron Carey, that image has improved.
As long-time beneficiaries of America's phenomenal growth, wealth, know-how, and stability, they now see their place in the transportation business shifting.
On April 7 some 75,000 members of the union went on strike, a move that forced 22 major trucking firms to shut down most of their operations.
The Teamsters are reacting to a demand by trucking companies to agree to increased use of railroads and the hiring of part-time workers. They argue that such a move would result in the loss of thousands of full-time Teamster jobs.
Products and the way they are packaged and delivered have changed, affecting not only the profits of producers, but also the affairs of those who deliver the goods. For American teamsters in the 1990s this often means shorter hauls, smaller paychecks, and direct competition with truckers who are willing to accept less profit for the privilege of getting home more often. Manufacturers and purchasers who long counted on major, nationwide trucking firms, have begun to adopt new methods of delivering their goods.
The Teamsters Union has dominated nationwide trucking activity in recent decades. Now that domination is waning.
Shippers are saying that long-distance delivery by one carrier is not necessarily the most economical when there are skilled drivers willing to accept considerably lower remuneration in exchange for spending less time on the road and more at home.
The major carriers are beginning to admit that their customers are less inclined than in former years to pay premium prices for shipping their goods when there are viable alternatives in many situations.
It appears that the Teamsters are going to have to share more of the still-lucrative transport business.